Washington area residents began their first working day under emergency cold weather conditions yesterday as the National Weather Service predicted that this month, like January, will be colder than normal.
Schools, offices, public services and private businesses using natural gas were either closed or operating under frigid conditions as Washington Gas Light Co. moved to enforce a program of voluntary conservation of the dwindling gas supply.
A spokeswoman for the gas company reported that consumption over the weekend was 8 to 10 per cent below what normally would have been consumed under similar conditions. Asked what a desirable reduction would be, spokeswoman Sheryl Rutledge said, "More than we've been getting."
In Baltimore, the executive director of the state's unemployment agency said that the cold weather was having a "substantial impact" on employment. James Phillips said the state already had a heavy case load of 65,000 to 68,000 claims and he estimated that this week would see an increase of 10,000 unemployed people because of the natural gas shortage.
Although natural gas was scarce, other energy source supplies appeared to be adequate. Leonard Steuart, whose Steuart Petroleum Co. is the principal heating oil supplier to government and industry in the metropolitan area, said that with the help of the Coast Guard, "we've been able to keep the oil flowing."
Steurt said no customers have had problems with supplies, although some customers may not have the reserves that they would like.
A spot check of home-heating oil suppliers indicated that no major problems have been encountered keeping homeowners and apartment building supplied with heating oil.
The federal government moved ahead with contingency plans to put federal workers on a four-day, 40-hour work week or take other necessary measures to reduce natural gas consumption. The Washington area is not expected to be affected much by this since the overwhelming majority of federal employees work in buildings heated by oil and coal, rather than natural gas.
Columbia Gas Transmission Corp. has already informed its customers, including Washington Gas Light, that it is cutting the daily allotment to its customers by 18 per cent for the rest of the winter season to avoid running out of gas.
Washington Gas Light yesterday continued calling large commercial users providing nonessential services and asking them to turn their thermostats down to the lowest possible setting or to the bare minimum needed to keep pipes from freezing.
Other users of natural gas are being asked to lower their thermostats to 65 degrees during the day and to 55 degrees at night.
Washington Gas Light appliance servicemen began making random checks yesterday to see if customers were complying with the voluntary curtailment program. "If we found a customer in noncompliance, we would go to the Public Service Commission and ask permission to turn that customer off. That's what could happen," Rutledge said.
In the District, George R. Rodericks, director of the city's Office of Emergency Preparedness, said key city agencies had been asked to assign staff representatives to the Mayor's Command Center to provide prompt aid to citizens calling in with problems such as lack of heat or water or broken pipes.
From early Sunday morning through late yesterday afternoon, Rodericks reported, the command center had received 241 calls from citizens with such problems. He said the departments of human resources, housing and community development, environmental services recreation, transportation and general services - and the D.C. school systems - were among agencies asked to provide round-the-clock representatives at the command center.
The National Weather Service reported yesterday that the outlook for February, despite the temporary warning trend predicted for today, is for more below normal temperatures - two to three degrees below the average temperature of 37.3 for the metropolitan Washington area.
In the first 25 days of January, according to weather service officials the metropolitan area was 10.6 degrees below the normal average temperature of 35.6.
When the last six days of the month are figured in, January, 1977, is expected to be the fifth coldest month for the metropolitan area since the weather service began recording the temperature. This January was the coldest since 1940, according to weather service officials.
Despite the cold January and predictions of a cold February, Harlan Saylor, deputy director of the weather service; National Meteorological Center, found a silver lining, as it were, among the clouds of gray.
Even if February is colder than normal, Saylor said, February is generally warmer than January, and thus a below normal February could still be warmer than the January the area just endured.
"Things are looking up," Saylor said. "The sun's higher in the sky. Spring is on its way." He said, however, that he saw no assurance of an early spring.
In Prince George's County, 13 schools heated by natural gas were closed yesterday. Two additional schools, not closed yesterday, will be closed today. Four other schools - Largo Senior High, Hyattsville Elementary, Berwyn Heights Elementary and Riverdale Hills Elementary - were closed yesterday becase of broken pipe but were expected to be open today.
Students in 142 propane-gas heated buildings were shifted to regular buildings. The 5,700 students - of a total of 143,000 in the Prince George's system - whose schools have been closed by the natural gas shortage were expected to be relocated in other schools by Wednesday, according to a spokesman.
In Montgomery County, 15 out of 139 Elementary schools were closed because the schools used natural gas. Montgomery school system spokesman Ken Muir said the affected students would be relocated in other schools by Wednesday.
Students from four Fairfax County elementary schools closed because of the gas shortage were to be transferred temporarily to other schools.
Government buildings around town continued to wrestle their heating/cooling systems toward the 65 degrees suggested by President Carter though the complexity of the systems and other considerations make that easier said than done.
"It probably will take four to six weeks to get all the federal buildings regulated to where they want them," said a spokesman for the General Services Administration, which controls the heating in most federal buildings. By then, he conceded, with any luch it will be spring.
Meanwhile, some offices were too warm, while others were arctic.
"I was warmer yesterday when I was outdoors cutting wood for our fireplace with thermal underwear on than I am today in my office," said one U.S. Postal Service employee. "The secret of keeping warm at work, obviously, is to wear to lots of clothing and keep moving."
At Woodward & Lothrop's downtown store, sometimes "it was hard to tell the customers from the clerks" because they all were bundled up equally, grumped hosiery clerk Wanda Lindsay. "And the customers bug us because they're cold. And there is no hot water in the powder room. And I'm afraid I'm going to catch a cold from working here."
And at the Washington Gas Light Co. office employees were as bundled up as the people working in other buildings around Washington. Some, like Greg Morgal wore thermal underwar while others bundled up with sweaters.
"You get used to the cold," Morgan shrugged.
Contributing to this story were Washington Post Staff writers Alice Bonner, B. D. Cole and Kathy Sawyer.